Though we often claim the contrary, Americans are political creatures. We cannot escape it. The political refers to who governs, what they choose to do with our resources, and the rules by which we live.
America’s love affair with politics coincides with another significant facet of life — our religion. In the United States, Christianity has always been the predominant religion, though its level of influence has been diminished over time. The secularization of America has changed how the nation views the Christian church, insisting now that religion should be left out of politics. This is not plausible for any person, regardless of their faith beliefs. Moreover, everyone is religious in some facet.
Everyone worships something. Christianity, at its core, presents us with a belief system about the universe. How did humans come to exist? Who made the universe? For what purpose do we exist? What does the future hold for us? These are merely a few questions that we seek to know. Christianity does not differ from any other world view in this way.
The Christian contention is that God created the universe and came to the earth in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth to rescue humans from themselves. As such, any Christian worships Jesus because of this belief in him as a deity. If you do not think of yourself as religious, this might seem strange or evoke images of an ancient ceremony long forgotten. But what does it mean to worship? For the Christian, it means to value Jesus Christ above all other people and things.
What do you worship? In your own personal life, what takes precedence? We all value something or someone as the preeminent aspect of our lives. In modern America, people worship money, a spouse, their children, a job, or social status. Any number of aspects of this world can become the object of your worship. The secular person is no more secular than anyone else.
Critics of Christianity may claim that they do not believe that Jesus is God. I understand that type of faith claim is difficult, but their own beliefs about what should be prioritized in life are on no more solid ground than the Christian. If the idea of labeling your top priority as ‘worship’ bothers you, think of it as your worldview. What ideas create and shape your worldview? For the Christian, it’s because God declared it. And it’s difficult for a human to argue with that. Upon what ground do secular claims rest?
Christians should not put away their faith. Secular Americans have claimed that a person should not bring Christianity into politics or their public life because it is an unfair expectation to think others must to submit to the Christian worldview. The secular critics often point to the concept of ‘separation of church and state’ embedded in the United States Constitution. This portion of the First Amendment is frequently misunderstood in both its history and current application.
The First Amendment’s text on religion reads:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …”
We refer to the first portion of this as the Establishment Clause and the second as the Free Exercise Clause.
The Founding Fathers wrote the Constitution with the attempt to create a national government which possessed enough power to adequately provide for the country, but not so powerful as to become oppressive to the people, and the states. In the original context of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause, the intent was not to remove religion from government altogether.
The driving purpose behind the Establishment Clause was only to prevent the federal government from creating a national religion, or favoring one denomination over others. Individual states had no problem telling people what they ought to believe. Many states had provisions whereby anyone running for state office had to swear or affirm they were a Christian. They just didn’t want the national government stepping into what they believed was a state matter.
Modern interpretations of the Establishment Clause have changed, though. The Supreme Court applied the Establishment Clause to state governments, as well. They cannot establish or endorse any religion over the others. I would submit that decision is the correct one. Government should not establish any state or national religion.
Neither Christianity nor any religion should be mandated to people or endorsed as an official government position. This does not preclude adherents to Christianity from carrying their faith into political and public life. A follower of Christianity bases his or her worldview and political beliefs on Jesus’ words and actions. If a person genuinely believes God created the universe and governs everything, then why would we expect that religious adherent to support a policy that God does not?
A Christian cannot and should not divorce themselves from their deeply held beliefs about how humans should live. Secularists deserve the same treatment. We cannot ask them to remove their deeply held worldview from their politics. Part of the American tradition has included the allowance for the marketplace of ideas. One cannot claim to promote free thought if they blatantly ask for a swath of people to censor themselves because those beliefs seem antiquated or discomforting.
Secularists developed their morals and values from Christianity. While Christianity does not hold as much influence in the United States as it once did, the nation derives many of its values and beliefs from the Christian faith. Western civilization as a whole has accepted certain ideas such as the innate value of life, equality among citizens, tolerance of others, equal justice, and scientific progress.
When critics of Christianity note that the United States is not a Christian nation, I agree with them (not for the reasons you might think). However, our society’s rules and laws stemmed from Enlightenment Era thinkers who held Christian beliefs.
For individuals who do not believe God exists, it must be a struggle to explain why human life matters. How can life have any meaning if the universe is one great cosmic accident? If this is true, then we are in the position where nothing matters. If the world started from nothing, and the stars one day will burn out and die, life will simply cease to exist. If this is the case, then nothing we ever do matters at all. This means humanity, and its civilization, and its accomplishments, will not matter.
Secularists know that human life, justice, and equality matter and have meaning. Yet, I do not envy their position in trying to explain why they matter. If God does not exist, then these key values of our culture are mirages. If God does not command we act a certain way, then by what right can any human demand it?
Theologian Cornelius Van Til properly noted that secularists created their values using “borrowed capital,” and he was right. The very ideas which secularists appreciate and advocate stemmed from a religion which they wish to sideline from politics.
Telling others to ignore their worldview is hypocritical. Many churches wrongly attempted to stifle the secular worldview, pressuring non-religious individuals to conform to their own worldview. In the political and cultural environment today, we see a very different power dynamic. Secularism, once the oppressed view, has become the oppressor.
By what right does the secularist tell a religious individual that their worldview lacks credibility? Anyone who believes the universe merely began as the result of a massive explosion with no known prior phenomena is taking a leap of faith greater than any religious belief. Why does a secular worldview hold any advantage over the Christian worldview?
The secular person in our society would have us believe that their worldview deserves to be incorporated into our politics, but not the religious worldview. This is a form of hypocrisy whereby secularism attempts to paint religion as regressive and not worthy of consideration. This is no different than what religious institutions have done in the past. It was wrong then, and it is wrong now.
One might point to scientific processes to demonstrate what we know or do not know to be true. However, this perceived advantage falters when we take into account the fallibility of science. What we know today as scientifically true has constantly been refined and science will continue to do so in the future. Scientists operate under the principle that what we know is true to the best of our knowledge. They are wise to understand that our understanding of the universe might change because humans are prone to mistakes and errors.
This should not be understood as a critique of science, logic, or reason. Any Christian ought to view these disciplines as some of the best ways to understand the universe around us. But science cannot explain everything. It fails to make sense of our sense of the aesthetic, or complex emotions. Why do we find paintings beautiful or ugly? Why are we able to love or forgive?
Politics and religion are intertwined, unavoidably so. We are all making faith claims about what we believe, and stifling the ideas of others only leads to a cycle of retribution where one group who may be a majority to marginalize a minority. If you say that our American values matter, then you must not laugh off religious beliefs nor should you ask people to leave their religion at the door. Doing so is to ask them to submit to your religion as the superior way … and we know how that ends.